at least there’s potatoes

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By my own admission, I am that food person. You know the one. The food magazine reading, reality food competition watching, restaurant obsessed, cooking gadget collector, straight up food nerd. I think I was born into the role.

Cooking and eating in the house I grew up in was a way to learn new things, express creativity and share love and gratitude. My mom was the 1970’s lady who baked her own bread, sewed our groovy outfits and gave all of us haircuts. No, we didn’t live on a religious commune nor was she trying to be hip. We were just a big family who needed those things and my mom was endlessly crafty. Thus one or more of us was put to work in the kitchen as soon we got old enough. And the tasks I remember the most revolved around potatoes. Peeling, chopping, boiling or baking- you could count on at least one of us Mahoney kids pitching in and doing our namesake proud. In fact, some of my favorite food memories– summer steak dinners, meatloaf night, Easter brunch– have little to do with the main course, if I’m honest and more to do with whatever potato was being served. I mean, who could remember anything about the nondescript ham someone brought over when there was my mom’s cheesy potatoes on the same table? Forty some odd years later, the potato obsession is alive and well.

Love makes you do crazy things and my love for potatoes is no different. I will confess that when I invite you to brunch because I miss you that’s only partially true. While your company is cherished, brunch for me, especially since Bloody Marys and mimosas are thankfully out of the picture, is actually about breakfast potatoes. The same can be said for the burger place I might casually suggest. Don’t be fooled. I have a hidden agenda. I’m suggesting this place most likely because I read somewhere about their fries. I recently started a heated Twitter thread by proclaiming my new-found love for potatoes on pizza, which I discovered in Portland. It’s delicious and I will hear nothing to the contrary. There are even places whose names escape me but you better believe I remember what sort of potatoes I ate there.

Since I don’t eat out 7 nights a week, this love spills over to my own diningroom table. Not to toot my own horn but I can cook. And I can really cook potatoes. To paraphrase 90’s R&B sensation Ashanti, “I’m not always there when you call, but I’ll always bring potatoes.” Potato salad? I’m your boo. Mashed potatoes? Um, yes. Three Thanksgivings ago, I was entrusted with making mashed potatoes for 30 people and it was a job I took very seriously.  So yeah, I got this. Baked, fried, croquettes? Check, check and check. But the best potatoes I make are ones that aren’t even mine.

If you ask my husband which potato dish I rock the most, he’ll say roasted potatoes. And he isn’t wrong. They’re freaking delicious but like most fantastic ideas, they came from someone else. Ina Garten to me is like the unsung Obi Wan Kenobi of vegetable roasting in this country. Miss Ina was roasting vegetables and spreading the gospel of their deliciousness since the 1990s. While people in 2017 are just discovering roasting and doing their cute little sheetpan meals, Ina’s been killing it for years. Thus my award-worthy roasted potatoes are her’s and her’s alone. Simple, perfect and applause worthy at brunch or dinner or whatever, the potatoes in question go like this:

3 pounds small red or white potatoes
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced garlic (6 cloves)
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Cut the potatoes in half or quarters and place in a bowl with the olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic; toss until the potatoes are well coated. Transfer the potatoes to a sheet pan and spread out into 1 layer. Roast in the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until browned and crisp. Flip twice with a spatula during cooking in order to ensure even browning.

Remove the potatoes from the oven, toss with parsley, season to taste, and serve hot.

There’s something artful about simplicity that my more-more-more addict brain finds soothing about this recipe and all of Ina’s giant white Hamptons kitchen existence. People like her and Mark Bittman were sort of the cornerstones for me as a cook and a student in cooking. They have this very relaxed but chic and smart approach that makes me think, “Okay, I can do that.” Unlike Martha Stewart, whom I also love but I watch her when I want to feel shamed and like I’m living a shabby life by not using enough parchment paper. It’s more of an abusive relationship and best in small doses. Plus, her recipes are really difficult and even the ingredients seem to be judging you. Yet sometimes I can’t resist watching Martha Bakes wherein she has pastry chef guests whom she bosses around and makes sweat profusely. It’s oddly uncomfortable and the post-prision, post-daytime show depressing production value of it makes it a must-see.

All of this leads back to potatoes, as it usually does. This morning, I was making breakfast for myself. Cooking for myself is something I also do well. Like a good recovering Catholic, I can make ingredients last forever or develop guilt about not using them. I chose the former and I decided to make breakfast tacos using some potatoes that I needed to cook. Throw in some eggs, salsa verde and cheese, serve on warm corn tortillas and you’ve got a breakfast party for your mouth. This little ceremony is insignificant in the sense that people everywhere eat breakfast all day long. But for a guy who didn’t really eat breakfast when he was drinking, it’s kind of important. The act of cooking, which I find meditative, and the art of cooking something perfectly is cause for satisfication. It feels like I’m being nice to myself. Treating food and cooking like gifts also helps me keep my relationship with it in tact which as an addict is key.

This morning as I made the homefries pictured in the glistening skillet above, my thought was at least there’s potatoes. I’ve been battling the blues a little bit. Maybe not the full-blown blues or a big depression. Perhaps just “Lite Blues.”Half the calories and despair as Original Recipe Blues. I try to shift my brain into gratitude when I go there. So my thought was at least there’s potatoes. At least there’s small joys sprinkled all throughout my day. At least there are gifts everywhere that are accessible when I look for them. And at least when those gifts are potatoes they’re also delicious.

Carrie On

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“Sometimes you can only find Heaven by slowly backing away from Hell.”  

-Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking

In a Barnes & Noble in Glendale, CA, there she was. Carrie Fisher. No, not in person but in book form. It was her memoir Wishful Drinking. I was just a month or so sober, shopping with my mom and utterly miserable/confounded/fucked up. In times of crisis my mom and I often go to bookstores and libraries and getting sober and leaving a ten plus year relationship certainly qualified as a crisis. Like every newly sober person ever, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But I knew I needed her book. And I needed it badly.  I devoured her first novel Postcards from the Edge at age 15 and she instantly became a source of storytelling inspiration. Here was this actress, this princess I always wanted to be, writing her soul out; utterly truthful, hilarious and talking about really dark shit. It blew my mind as a teenager from an alcoholic home who still had problems even acknowledging the truth, much less telling the truth about anything. So in 2009 with my head up my ass, I knew I needed that book. I knew this because she had been there for me before and I knew I could count on her again.

The usual snickering and laughing like a crazy person by yourself that happens with a Carrie Fisher book ensued once I got my hands on Wishful Drinking. It came at the precise right time in my life, as books usually do. Dishy, sad, profound and really funny, it was the tonic required to deal with my life. But what didn’t I know then or even as a fifteen year old is that Carrie Fisher wasn’t just entertaining me. She was actually helping me figure how I could someday talk about my own really dark shit too.

But in that moment with a life in turmoil what Carrie Fisher was giving me was a good laugh. Wishful Drinking is so jam-packed with Carrie Fisherisms that it’s sort of like hanging out with an old friend who maybe overshares a little too much which could be exhausting in real life but makes for one hell of an entertaining read. There are literally hundreds of gems and nuggets of wisdom in that book especially for addicts and alcoholics but here’s a few of my favorites:

“I feel I’m very sane about how crazy I am.”

“Happy is one of the many things I’m likely to be over the course of a day and certainly over the course of a lifetime. But I think if you have the expectation that you’re going to be happy throughout your life–more to the point, if you have a need to be comfortable all the time–well, among other things, you have the makings of a classic drug addict or alcoholic.”

“Anyway, at a certain point in my early twenties, my mother started to become worried about my obviously ever-increasing drug ingestion. So she ended up doing what any concerned parent would do. She called Cary Grant.”

“And not that it matters, but my mother is not a lesbian! She’s just a really, really bad heterosexual.”

“Having waited my entire life to get an award for something, anything…I now get awards all the time for being mentally ill. It’s better than being bad at being insane, right? How tragic would it be to be runner-up for Bipolar Woman of the Year?”

This gift, this memoir, this book picked up in a bookstore on a Sunday with my mom was the beginning of the long process of what I like to call “the light turning on.” For me it was never a simple flick of a switch but a billion positive messages, a million tears and thousands of laughs that eventually lead to the light being turned on. Wishful Drinking and Carrie Fisher were a part of that. I’m incredibly grateful that Carrie Fisher was the one to show me that the truth could be funny, fierce and freeing. And more than that it could help other people too.

When news of her death took over the internet yesterday, I realized instantly that I wasn’t the only one to have the light turned on by Carrie Fisher. My amazing editor Anna David wrote about it in Time. Sober friends tweeted about her impact all day long. And friends and relatives who knew how much she meant to me texted to offer their condolences. See, the thing is that even though Carrie Fisher and I never met, she was important. By following her example of learning how to laugh at the shitshow of my life, I’ve been able to recover. I’ve been able to get better and I’ve learned how to laugh at the other curve balls life has thrown my way in sobriety.

But now that Carrie is gone, it’s up to us. It’s up to us make one another laugh about really dark shit. It’s up to us to keep writing our truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us and the people around us. It’s up to us to speak out for people with addiction, alcoholism and mental illness. We get to carry this torch for one another and laugh together and what an incredible gift. I don’t treat it lightly and plan on doing my damnedest to continue her work.

I was given the writing note this fall that a piece of mine needed to be “funnier and sassier and Sean-like.” While I rose to that challenge and fired on all smart ass cyllanders, what this person was actually saying was, “Be more like Carrie Fisher.” And from here on out I will keep trying to do just that.

“If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”
― Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking

 

 

A New Gratitude

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You are really concerned about Thanksgiving. I’ve seen your dozens of posts about its racism, pilgrims and gluttony. These are all really important discussions. Likewise, I find all of the seasonal slideshows about stuffing, pie and potatoes to be equally important. Your thoughts on this holiday are valid but without sounding like a dick: if these are your only thoughts on Thanksgiving, you are doing it wrong. The delicious filling on the inside of this turkey-football-inception-puzzle-holiday is gratitude. Sorry ’bout it Hokey Pokey, but gratitude is what it’s actually all about. By all means, groan at this very word and whilst you do so, listen to Ms. Patti LaBelle. Please enjoy the hats and earrings.

See, I told you. Everything goes down better with shoulder pads and drum machines. Even concepts like gratitude. Look, I get it: the idea feels beaten to death. Rightfully so, as our culture currently offers a warped and syrupy expression of gratitude. There’s 6,001 inspirational gratitude memes (none of which I will post because I love you). There’s an underdeveloped but widely spread idea that if you’re just grateful for what you have a magical gift basket of your heart’s desires will show up on your doorstep. And how could we forget the tweets using #grateful for the most annoying superficial things? Yet if we clear away all of the lame ass Pinterest sentiment, gratitude is actually some badass shit. Turns out, science agrees with me too.

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The Greater Good Center at Berkeley is filled with neuroscientists, sociologists and psychologists who’ve “launched a $3 million research initiative to expand the scientific understanding of gratitude, particularly in the key areas of health and well-being, developmental science, and social contexts.” Clearly, this group of smarties thinks gratitude is something worth investing in. So far, the research is already paying off. According to the website:

They’re finding that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits:
Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure;
Higher levels of positive emotions;
More joy, optimism, and happiness;
Acting with more generosity and compassion;
Feeling less lonely and isolated.

Tal Ben-Sharar, who taught Harvard’s most popular course on happiness agrees too. One of his six keys to happiness is to, “Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.” In fact, it was his book Happier which I stumbled on back in 2010 while housesitting, that blew my brain open and catapulted me into my own gratitude practice.

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When I was drinking, I remember watching a mid-2000’s episode of Oprah (which were the best in the craziest way possible. I could write 2,500 words on the Hermes episode alone) where she said she always wrote down 5 things she was grateful for before bed. It sounded like a brilliant idea and I probably even told people I started doing it too. But the reality was Oprah was a billionaire with lots of things to be grateful for and I was a drunken coke whore who was waiting tables. Coming up with 5 things back then was certainly a challenge. Still, it stuck in my brain so when Happier fell into my lap, I started making a daily list.

Keep in mind, I’m an addict so even my  early gratitude lists were excessive. 25 things every day along with 30 minutes of meditation. Apparently, I was trying to win some Best In Spirituality ribbon. However, binging on gratitude and meditation wasn’t exactly sustainable. Luckily, the practice morphed. First, a sponsee and I started texting our gratitude lists. Soon, my sponsor and I started sharing our gratitude lists in a private thread on Facebook. It was whittled down to five things. They were written with intention and I did it every single day for years even after I moved away from my sobriety family in Los Angeles to Denver. The list and ritual with it soon moved onto the people I’ve sponsored. And lo and behold, it’s been a daily part of my life for nearly 7 years. It’s the closest thing I have to a religion, if I’m totally honest.

Listen, I really don’t know how or why gratitude works. It’s magic and that’s kind of what my whole God spiritual life thing is based on. I don’t have any specific religious God defined. I just think the magic of the universe and all things I can’t explain fall under the God umbrella and it works for me. I do know that whatever bullshit I’m grappling with seems pretty incidental when I’m able to write down a few things that made my day easier or put a smile on my face. Sometimes, just horrible days being over is something to be grateful for. Gratitude has even managed to carry me through hard times. When I’ve struggled, muscling through and finding something, anything to be grateful my outlook transforms. Anger, sadness, depression all have been loosened when I focus on what’s amazing in my life and let go. Ditto with poor health. I’m no Berkeley grad but based on my last doctor’s visit, I can tell you my blood pressure is low and I feel pretty fantastic so I gotta believe gratitude (along with some decent choices) has certainly helped. Therefore, I guess it’s only natural like as gratitude has changed me, my idea of gratitude has recently changed too.

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As I was getting ready to write this, I was listening to Alanis, as one does in sorts of research situations. My current idea of gratitude was right there as sung by a 90’s Canadian songstress:

Thank you terror
Thank you disillusionment
Thank you frailty
Thank you consequence
Thank you thank you silence

That was it! When I started this practice it was all about just the sunny, wonderful things that made my life better. Yet as I listened to this song I realized, it ain’t really just about that anymore. Today, I am also grateful for the fucked up stuff too. I’m grateful for loss, for moments of darkness and yes even for situations that feel horrible and utterly hopeless. Like homegirl said, terror, frailty, disillusionment– all of it. Crazy but it’s the honest to god’s truth because I know that the healing and wisdom gained from hard times is immeasurable and something to be thankful for. Sure, I’d like that daily list to always be filled with rainbows and life-changing pieces of chocolate cake but being grateful for heartache and sadness is even more powerful.

Thus tomorrow, on Thanksgiving day, I’ll write my gratitude list as always. It’s not lost on me that I’m lucky to even be alive and celebrating Thanksgiving so that will certainly cross my mind. As will the people I’m grateful to have known who aren’t here this year. Not being drunk on holidays always makes the list. Then the list will move onto lovely things like hugs, my cats and mashed potatoes. But by taking 3 minutes to realize that everything doesn’t suck, the holiday becomes something incredibly special to me.

And then if I’m really lucky, I get to wake up on Friday and write a new list all over again.